The Stomach and the Port

Liverpool Biennial, England 2021

The very first enclosed port was built here, establishing the city’s prosperity via trading cottons and woollens, guns, iron, alcohol and tobacco. Liverpool also found wealth from human trade, both the forced movement of people and the trade of products created by forced labour. The first school of tropical medicine was founded here in 1898, a time when science emerged as the bedrock of objective and rational analysis, within which early Western definitions of the body were formed.

I have spent over two years navigating questions regarding the ‘body’ and the long-standing myths, assumptions and generalisations that accompany attempts to define it. Western bodies have long been designated as a ‘neutral’ or ‘universal’ standard, which in turn has determined the conditions of citizenship and of whose life is valuable, worthy of protection and rights. In this edition we ask, how have these definitions of the body been preserved? By whom? In whose interest? How might we disrupt these categories, and how can we resist them? In doing so, how can we nurture a sense of coexistence and reciprocity, with others and with our environment?

Articulating these issues through the language of the body, and attention to its porosity, vulnerability and interdependence, might enable us to perceive the body as the site of intersecting powers, to a site for political agency. What happens when we shift our understanding of bodies from something humanshave, to something humansare? Such a shift might help us to redefine political agency as a collective, inclusive and indeterminate force rather than as a tool for dogmatic self-reinforcement. The art practices shaping this Biennial all persist with complicating and refining the conversation; moves beyond dichotomies of individual and collective, interior and exterior, to thinking with a body that is fluid, resilient, unpredictable and entangled with one another. We strive for a world that nurtures life for all. In this Biennial, art explores those entanglements and their potential for resistance, providing a space to imagine.

Liverpool Biennial 2021 asks the question:what is a body?What does it mean to be human, and what could humans be to one another?The Stomach and the Portdraws its title from an understanding of bodies as fluid, porous and interdependent organisms – continuously shaping and shaped by their environments.

We might think of the human stomach and the port as two sites of connection and exchange; both receive and redistribute information, knowledge and goods, both are by nature relational. Our skin, too, is a boundary through and on which social meaning is inscribed and a porous and breathable organ through which we respond to the external world. The 2020 pandemic has laid bare the reality that all bodies are porous, not only to each other, but to vast, interconnected networks of cultural, natural and sociopolitical systems. Recent movements to protect lives from state and structural violence and to preserve physical integrity such as Black Lives Matter have also demonstrated that borders are not simply geographical, architectural, or biological, but are politically and interpersonally maintained. All the works included in this Biennial address bodies within specific locations and constraints, but also suggest they are never truly fixed to any one place in particular. Humans are not merely consumers or receivers, but producers and reproducers of the world and of future political consciousness.

Ports have been vital to the movement of bodies and materials throughout history. They played a key role in the development of modernity, in establishing the dominance of Western democracy and in the foundation of colonial capitalism, in which gendered, racialised and colonised bodies, along with natural resources, were fed into then/now-emerging economies of extraction. Liverpool played an important part in this world order. The city became a globally important port by the 18th century.